It is true that Judaism, like Islam, does not approve pictorial depictions, foremost of revered personalities. However, Jews of Istanbul did not adhere to the restrictions imposed by Orthodox Judaism on the use of images in religious sites. They were tolerant and receptive to arts overall. To witness that and visit a synagogue with interior decorations, one does not need to go too far, but to Kuzguncuk, a multicultural, fairy-tale like neighborhood on the Asian part of the Bosporus. Before you jump on a boat from Beşiktaş or Eminönü to get to the Beth Yaakov Synagogue, let me give you a snapshot history of the Jews in Istanbul and Kuzguncuk.
While Jews had lived in the Aegean region since two millennia, Istanbul’s Jewish populace had witnessed a major increase after the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal after the completion of the reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim Moors in the 1490s. After Sultan Bayezid II had accepted their settlement in the Ottoman Empire, the Sephardim, speaking an Old Castilian Spanish dialect with Hebrew influence – usually called Judeo-Spanish, Judezmo, or Ladino – settled in the old town amidst the older Romaniot (Greek-speaking) Jews, whom they soon outnumbered. They not only set themselves apart from the Romaniots but also differentiated along congregations according to their place of origin (Toledo, Cordoba, Lisbon, etc.).
The Constantinopolitan Jews traditionally lived in the quarters on both sides of the Golden Horn, namely Balat, Hasköy, and Galata. In the 18th century, and particularly in the second half of the 19th century, the city greatly expanded outside of the old walled city to north of the Golden Horn and along the Bosphorus. It is in this period that Kuzguncuk emerged as a major Jewish settlement outside the old town. While the existence of a Jewish village is evidenced since the 17th century, it is in the later 19th century that the more affluent Jews of Balat moved to this suburb, which consequently came to be considered the most elegant Jewish neighborhood of Istanbul. Ortaköy, just across the straits from Kuzguncuk, and Yeniköy further north, where synagogues still remain, were other important Jewish settlements on the Bosphorus. We need to be reminded that, while today most of the Bosphorus shoreline and its hinterland is heavily urbanized, in the 19th century these were really secluded settlements only properly accessible by boat, and most often not considered part of the city.
Living side by side with Greeks, Armenians, and Muslims, whose houses of worship are located in immediate vicinity of each other, Jews formed the majority of Kuzguncuk’s population up until the mid 20th century. Since then Kuzguncuk gradually acquired a Muslim majority following in-migration mainly from Kastamonu, Inebolu, Rize, and Sivas, while the former Jewish inhabitants migrated to Israel or moved to more popular neighborhoods of Istanbul (Moda, Baghdad Street, Prinkipo Island, etc). Two of Kuzguncuk’s formerly three synagogues remain, while only Beth Yaakov still regularly holds services for a community which has shrunken to only a dozen believers. In the whole of Istanbul around 20,000 Jews remain.
As most non-Muslim religious buildings in Ottoman Istanbul, the Beth Yaakov Synagogue (also “Central Synagogue” or “Kal de Abaso”, lower Synagogue) does not face the street (İcadiye Caddesi no. 9), but is entered through a courtyard behind high walls. It is entered through a portal crowned by a broken pediment in the neo-Baroque style with a double arched recess with an inscription in Hebrew script. The biggest of the Kuzguncuk synagogues, built in 1878, Beth Yaakov’s main building is a rectangular structure with two rows of windows entered through a Victorian porch of carved wood. The top windows are rounded and feature wooden Stars of David. The same motif we find on the lower windows, which are rectangular and of colored glass – long considered a trademark of Christian architecture but later also used in mosques and synagogues.
In the interior we find decoration typical for the 19th century, such as trompe l’oeils, panels and cartouches on the side walls, while a major point of interest are the paintings depicting landscapes and buildings from the holy land in the interior dome. Depictions of humans or animals, just like in mosques, do generally not feature in synagogues for being considered akin to idolatry. Directly below the dome is the raised tebah (“reader’s platform”) from which the Torah is read and the services are conducted. The benches are grouped around this raised platform, echoing the Hebrews standing around Mount Sinai when they received the Torah. An azara, a gallery reserved for women, is located on two sides of the room on the upper level.
The most important feature of a synagogue’s interior is the Ark (hekhal), where the holy scrolls are kept. It is located on the eastern wall, facing Jerusalem, opposite the tebah. To underline its importance it is suitably decorated (carved wood) and raised above the ground by at least three steps. The perpetual lamp in an ornamental metal receptacle hangs from the ceiling in front of the Ark. Placed on either side of the Ark we find the menorah, the seven-branched candlestick. Across the courtyard from the Beth Yaakov’s main building there is a smaller room for prayer with a similar decorative program and a circular interior dome depicting buildings, grapes, and symbols for the 12 tribes of Israel around the Star of David.
The other surviving synagogue in Kuzguncuk is the smaller Virane (also “Kal de Ariva” – upper synagogue) uphill on Yakup Sokak No. 8. It was built only a few years after Beth Yaakov. To obtain permission for visits of Istanbul synagogues please contact the Chief Rabbinate at 0212-2435166.